• Geoff Russell

How emission targets dug us deeper into a climate hole

What's the image all about? ... see the appendix at the end of the article.

We desperately need a global plan to get to net-zero (or below) greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to get there fast. All good plans come with interim objectives, so why shouldn't we have 2-year, 5-year and 10-year emission targets?

Emission targets are simply the wrong kind of targets. We'll see below why they aren't just political grand standing and look-at-me electioneering, but worse; they are seriously counterproductive. They've delivered us into evil by way of temptation.

Consider this illustrative problem. You have a thousand people on the banks of a wide and dangerous river. There are no bridges and you want to get them all to the other side before the arrival of some calamity; it doesn't matter what, imagine whatever nightmare you like.

One way to tackle the problem is to set interim targets like 20 people a day. You could even offer to pay anybody who can get to the other side. At 20 people per day, your 1,000 people will all be on the other side at the end of 50 days.

Given the financial incentive, the strong swimmers might immediately take to the water. And after the first week you might well have 140 people on the other side and feel proud of your achievement. You've hit the target. Whoopee!

The fact that 400 people can't swim, and won't ever be able to swim for various reasons, might get missed in the celebrations of the first week's goal being achieved. You've now lost a week and some of your (athletically) fittest people.

A much better way of proceeding is to plan a suitable technology for the size of the river. Perhaps a pontoon bridge or a fleet of rafts. At the end of the first week the count of people on the other bank will be zero. The count of people is analogous to an emissions target; it's simply the wrong kind of target.

The right target for week one of the river problem might well be locating suitable materials for your chosen technologies while simultaneously finding people with the skills to do the work. The right target for this problem is never the number of people on the other bank.

For our climate problem and emissions reduction target is also the wrong type of target; because it shifts attention from complete solutions to cheap and nasty stopgaps; approaches that might achieve a rapid emissions reduction at the expense of leaving us in a dead end and totally unable to reach our final goal in the time we have.

Lowering emissions locally but making our global problems worse

Here's a couple of real world examples of emissions targets being counter-productive.

Natural Gas

The term is brilliant marketing, but natural gas is just methane; yet another hydrocarbon like coal, but one that has a devastating impact on the climate if it leaks and a still significant impact when it doesn't. But politicians chasing emission targets were easily seduced by being able to use this fossil fuel to meet them; because it burns cleaner than coal.

So, all over the world, people have been building pipelines, LNG terminals and methane mining operations. LNG (aka liquified natural gas) is just very cold methane (-161 degrees C); at the lower temperature the gas becomes a liquid; making it easier to ship. The amount of energy these LNG (and other gas) projects are producing needs to be understood. Wanna-be Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was pilloried for not knowing the cash and unemployment rates, but how many Australians know the amount of LNG we exported in 2019? It's a critically important number.

The answer is 75 million tonnes.

But just knowing the number, parrot fashion, isn't enough. Numbers have to mean something to change your thinking in useful ways.

Consider the Nyngan solar farm, it's 250 hectares; a hectare is 100 metres x 100 metres. It has a maximum power output of 105 megawatts. Go outside and pace out the metres; get a feel for how big a hectare covered with stuff is. Use Google earth to measure a few areas and get a feel for 250 hectares; covered in 1.35 million solar panels and 150,000 steel posts. That's a single Nyngan. Two and a bit Nyngans and you have an area the size of the runways of Sydney airport (given that 500 hectares is 5 square kilometres).

It's not too difficult to calculate the amount of electricity you'd need to generate each year to make enough ammonia to export in place of those 75 million tonnes of LNG (ammonia being a more shippable form of hydrogen).

The result is that you'd need to build 8,000-10,000 Nyngan solar plants to make enough electricity each year; which is 10 to 13 billion PV panels mounted on 1.2-1.5 billion steel posts and covering an area of between 2 and 2.5 million hectares. Stop reading and think about those numbers for a bit.

Why have I put a range of numbers instead of just a single number? The low end of the range is if your ammonia generation method is the best possible and the high end is when you have today's efficiency. Now you can see why LNG is so seductive and cheap. That 75 million tonnes comes from a few relatively small projects; meaning small in area. The Gorgon LNG plant in Western Australia covers about 250 hectares (the area of a single Nyngan solar farm) and provides about 15 of those 75 million tonnes.

Who thinks it will be easy for Australia to replace our LNG plants with renewable energy solutions? Gorgon cost about $70 billion to build. Who thinks any Government will turn that into a stranded asset and compensate Chevron, the company involved? The Nyngan solar farm cost $440 million to build back in 2015. It might be $80-$100 million today. So go on, multiply that by 8,000. It's about $640 billion; assuming the most efficient process possible. And remember that Gorgon is just 20 percent of our LNG export production. Hopefully, you will be getting some idea of the difficulties of replacing LNG with clean energy. Keep in mind that the countries who buy our LNG need it. It keeps them warm, it powers cooking, and it generates electricity; among other things.

But we know that Gorgon can't be allowed to operate for the term of its natural life! That's the rub.

How did we dig ourselves into such a diabolical hole? It's what we do in Australia; dig holes.

The story is the same globally with all the gas programs. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has served to concentrate a few minds on what's been blindingly obvious now for decades. Germany, like Australia, has been digging its natural gas hole for 20 years. Germany closed down perfectly good (and clean) nuclear reactors and, in doing so, strengthened its dependence on fossil fuels. When you replace nuclear with fossil fuels, your citizens pay a heavy price; because you get more pollution around the gas and coal plants and this additional pollution has been killing Germans at an estimated rate of some 900 per year; that's 9,000 dead Germans between 2010 and 2019. But I'm getting a little side tracked.

The expansion of gas over the past 20 years has turned a hard problem into a diabolically difficult one. Gas projects eventually deplete the geological basin holding the gas, but that could take decades and we don't have time to wait. Which leaves two choices; add carbon capture to gas plants where feasible or just walk away ... write off 20 years of industrial expansion of pipelines and gas infrastructure; this is called "stranding the assets".

Offshoring emissions

Offshoring emissions is another terrific strategy for meeting emission targets while making the global climate problem harder. The process is simple; you shut down your heavy emission intensive industries and buy the goods that those industries normally produced from somewhere else. As a strategy, it's really only available to wealthy countries. The Economist recently reported on how Germany is shopping around to replace the Russian gas it is so reliant on. Put simply, it is outbidding poorer countries for LNG which will be delivered to other European countries and then piped through to Germany. The poorer countries will be burning more coal or simply going without.

For the past 20+ years, rich countries have been exporting heavy industry to China and anywhere else trying to industrialise, while at the same time criticising these countries for not doing more to meet climate targets.

To be fair, the up-side of this shifting of industrial capacity is the lifting of hundreds of millions out of the worst poverty. The progress recorded in the Global Burden of Disease reports on such horrors as infant mortality and healthy years of life expectancy have been clear and positive. The number of children per woman, the total fertility rate, has dropped from 2.72 in 2000 to 2.31 in 2019; an amazing achievment in the fight to bend the curve of global population. Global progress on reducing deep poverty has been impressive while being still very much incomplete.

But the downsides of the industrial relocation has been the impact on the capacity of wealthy countries to do their bit to tackle the climate emergency while also increasing the urgency of the problem. Why? Because the developing countries have, mostly, used the same methods we used when industrialising; coal, coal and more coal.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel with China; but I'll save that good news for a little later! Probably another post; stay tuned.

In Australia, we have just dumbed down; and down and down. Which doesn't mean we don't have plenty of talent; we just aren't using it well. The index of economic complexity is an interesting measure of the skills and inter-relationships in a country. Australia ranks at 87, just after Uganda and before Burkina Faso. Regardless of how much huffing and puffing there is about "value-adding", we mostly excel at digging holes and smashing our biodiversity with ovines and bovines. Both are high on the climate emergency exacerbation index while the latter are a boon for colon cancer surgeons globally.

In my lifetime I've watched the textile and car (among others) industries vanish. I don't mourn the loss of the cars as much as the skills. Short sighted thinking is an iconic Aussie attribute. I watched a morning ABC TV presenter wax lyrical this morning about the skills of some tic-toc clip maker. What about the collective genius of those who design and build the tools of such trades? The modern camera, whether in a phone or larger, is an astonishing collective achievement. Using them to make a tic-toc clip? That's like elevating the skills of a barista above those of a barrister. This may seem like a tangential rant; but it cuts to the core of common Australian modes of thinking about climate change.

Keep in mind that with 25 million Australians, many fail to fit my depressing stereotype. But that index (not to mention various international educational comparisons) shows that I'm not just imagining the worst and telling stories.

Case Studies: International Energy Agency and the Climate Council (Australia)

Let's consider a couple of different plans. The Climate Council is an Australian lobby group, but with some serious high quality scientists on its Council. It has a handful of paid staff and produces reports of various kinds. In May 2022 it released a report called "Climate policies for a sensible Government". It calls it a "comprehensive" list and is careful to say "This is a recipe, not a shopping list". All up, this is a terrific example of the kind of flotsam that ends up drifting into the policy vacuum that is Australia's climate emergency response. Let me illustrate with one of its core policies: Replace fossil fuel cars with electric vehicles. It says we should do this with a target to ban fossil fuelled cars and rigid trucks by 2030. Given that we don't make cars in Australia anymore, then this is definitely a shopping list. Import a bunch of electric vehicles and we'll definitely cut our transportation emissions. But these are already artificially low because all the emissions associated with production have been exported.

Now let's compare this simple "recipe" with the IEA consideration of the issue from it's Net Zero by 2050 plan of May 2021. The IEA traces the supply chain back to the source. If you want an EV you need both an EV factory and a battery factory. Focusing on the batteries, the IEA estimates that to electrify the world's light vehicle transport, we'd need 200 battery gigafactories by 2030. By gigafactory, they are talking about a factory that can build 35 gigawatt hours of batteries per year. How did they work that out? It's not complicated and the Climate Council's staff could just as easily worked it out; but didn't appear to do so.

The global sales of light vehicles will probably be about 100 million per year in 2030; give or take 20 million. If each has a Tesla sized 85 kwh battery, then we'd need 242 gigafactories (Easy: 100e6*85e3/35e9). Of course, many more people will have smaller batteries, so 200 gigafactories sounds reasonable. There are around 22 battery gigafactories today with VW planning another 7 by 2030. There are news reports from time to time about other plans, but nothing remotely close to even half the 200 required by the IEA plan.

The Climate Council "recipe" doesn't just need a ban on petrol vehicles, it needs 200 battery gigafactories to be built somewhere by 2030 to work. This isn't looking likely, so without some extraordinary up-tick in the building of these not-exactly-trivial factories, the Climate Council plan is doomed.

Think about it. If there are only 100 gigafactories by 2030, then the Climate Council target could only be met if we got far more than our fair share of the available batteries. Hardly much of an achievement because it would mean that other countries with similar targets will have to fail.

The CC didn't feel the need to suggest we build our share of batteries here, because that's not what we do. We just buy stuff.

Looking back still further along the supply chain, as the IEA did, we can easily see that the 200 gigafactories alone won't provide the necessary batteries unless they are hooked up to a flowing river of minerals from mines. This is the topic of the recent ABC 4 Corners "Digging in" program. The IEA understands this. Which is why they did a companion report to the Net Zero by 2050 Report: "The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions". Credit to the Climate Council, they did at least recommend we dig plenty of new holes and export the output from those holes; metals for batteries and other high tech toys.

Self centered policy thinking is rampant in Australia. People frequently call for huge renewable builds ... which of course aren't actually builds at all. Someone else does the building; we just assemble. Australians have a cargo cult mentality to technology; we just imagine what ever we want will be for sale. Credit to the Climate Council at least for suggesting we build clean energy infrastructure here. But the lack of detail is telling. It was just a formulaic gesture rather than a recipe. Still, it might get more serious planners thinking.

Australians are obsessed with winning, be it cricket, snowboarding, or anything else. So, predictably, the Climate Council wants to turn Australia into a "climate leader". But winning the race to reduce emissions isn't like other races. Nobody wins if there are any losers. It doesn't matter how much our emissions drop if the falls are due to buying solar panels or wind turbines built with cheap coal in China. We all, globally, have to win the race to net-zero or nobody does. Of course, that's not strictly accurate. Most of the world's emissions come from a small proportion of its countries. But it would be a mistake to allow anybody to run the argument that "We are a small country, what we do doesn't matter"; because everybody can run that. Every small Chinese city of a couple of million can run it ... "We are just two million!". Every province in every country can run it. So equity matters; we all have to act.

Virtue signalling targets

In some circles, setting emission targets is totally divorced from any kind of actual plan or consideration of the problems. Extinction Rebellion UK is calling for net-zero emissions by 2025. Have they considered how the German Energiewende (energy transition) has been going? After all, no significant economy has diverted as much time and money in attempts to run their electricity grid on wind and sunshine. Energy analyst Vaclav Smil's latest book is called "How the world really works". It should be compulsory reading for anybody thinking about emission targets and how to achieve them. Smil notes that over the past 20 years, the Energiewende has managed to reduce the share of fossil fuels in Germany's primary energy supply from 84 percent to 78 percent. How could the Germans have made so little progress? Despite considerable experience of Smil's work, I double checked his figures, and unsurprisingly they are correct. He could perhaps also have noted that the Germans have decreased primary energy use by 15 percent; creditable, but still glacially slow. In essence, the Germans have shown everybody else what trying and failing looks like; because of their bloody minded ideological rigidity over nuclear power.

Impossible net-zero targets, with absolutely no attempt to flesh out the required actions, make a mockery of the serious nature of the climate emergency and the complexity of actual plans and pathways. It's also bloody lazy. Unfortunately, the media love and give attention to anything which is colourful and sparkly. So these targets get air time and prompt other groups to make similar calls. Pretty soon the race is on: "My net-zero target is closer than yours; because I care more than you!".

How to set proper targets

Emission targets suck for the reasons I've given. Bidding wars on emission targets are simply infantile and silly. Both encourage lazy stopgap thinking; which is what we have had for the past two decades. Populism isn't just a right wing Donald Trump driven infection, it's an equal opportunity disease; infecting all sides of our multifaceted political prism.

To set proper targets you need a plan that will work. That overall plan will encompass many industry specific plans. The IEA net-zero plan is an honest attempt at such a plan. We can't really expect lobby groups to compete with well funded experts, but it's about time the media and the public learned the difference between fund raising campaigns and proper attempts at problem solving. Lobby groups would be far better to concentrate of analysing real plans, on checking the assumptions, finding holes. No plan is perfect and it's much easier to find holes in a good plan than to build one from scratch.

But that's the subject of another post!

Appendix: Global energy

The cover image for this article is vastly simplified representation of the global energy system and its contribution to the services that people need or want. It's old data and the numbers should be ignored, but the relative sizes of the flow components will probably be not too far from the truth. Half an hour spent studying this diagram will be invaluable in understanding the scope of the global energy problem and the interrelationships of the parts.

Note for example the "biomass" flow (the green flow component). It's massive, why? Because a couple of billion people still cook with wood. The smoke sickens and kills children and shortens adult lives. Every component of this chart tells a story and represents a part of the energy infrastructure that needs a plan. Note the size of the blue renewable flow (15 ... lower left). An uptodate chart would have a wind/solar/hydro breakdown and have wind+solar (2446 TWh) a little smaller than nuclear (2700 TWh) (based on BP Stats 2021). Note also that the size of the grey bars isn't really comparable; because different units are appropriate. Lastly keep in mind that this is just energy ... the total of the emissions is 10.7+5.3+11.0=27 gigatonnes of CO2. The current annual emissions, which include far more than energy, is about 59 gigatonnes (IPCC AR6).

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